Recovery from Spiritual Abuse
By Sharon Hilderbrant, M.A.
Recently, I have read two new books that describe in detail the abusive behavior of various churches and the effects of this abuse on church members. Churches That Abuse, by Ron Enroth, and Damaged Disciples (in press), by Ron and Vicki Burks, both published by Zondervan, relate stories that may be hard for some Christians to believe. Those of us who work with the victims, however, know the stories are true.
Churches on the fringe exist in every major metropolitan area as well as in small towns and isolated rural areas. Some are large, "mega-church" organizations, while some may be small house-church gatherings. Most of them look fairly normal to outsiders. That is, until abused persons begin to leave and tell of their experiences.
Getting out of the group is only the beginning of recovery. Recovery involves, according to one survivor, getting "the group out of us." The effects of abuse are long-standing. The following outlines how Christians can help the spiritually abused in their recovery.
Therefore, a safe place for confidentiality, a place to be relaxed without expectations of appearances or performance, a place to connect with another caring person (or persons) without becoming too involved in private lives, is needed. A dysfunctional dont trust rule was present in the system, by teaching, by practice, or both. Dont push for trust. Dont push the recovery process. Respect their boundaries.
Too much intellectualizing may inhibit the survivor from getting in touch with his or her emotions. Fear, guilt, anger, grief, rage, sorrowall must be felt and expressed in their own time. An overspiritualizing of emotions may have been present in the dysfunctional system, with certain emotions demanded and others condemned by a twisting of scripture. The result is a dont feel your real feelings rule.
Who am I?
They need to know that they are not evil or possessed, not crazy, not shameful. They need to know that they are not powerless and that they can recover and grow beyond this experience. Dont make decisions for them and dont try to fix them. Let them know you speak for yourself. Be careful of speaking for God. Tell them recovery takes a long time2 to 4 years, or longer.
What about the group?
They also need to recognize that group leaders actually deceived people, used and abused people, twisted scripture, and fostered co-dependent and/or addictive behaviors (perhaps immoral behavior, too) among members. Be gentle as you interpret what was hurtful and wrong in the group. Remember, they probably have left behind some people that are still dear to their hearts and do not wish to blame them. Information about co-dependency and dysfunctional families and other institutions at this stage may be helpful in confronting denial. Save Bible reading until the individual is ready to grapple with it in small doses.
What is God really like?
Survivors will need to be reminded again and again of the true attributes of God and the principle of grace. Be genuine. Be personal. Explain how scripture helps you to understand Gods attributes. If you have received grace, you can speak confidently about it. Tell what you love about God.
Going to church:
Help them to recognize the distorted thinkingabout themselves, about God, etc.that accompanies traumatic reactions. This is a good time to use the safety and authority of scripture to confront the deception created by the group, and to soothe and console. A trained counselor may be needed for this part of recovery.
Help them obtain medical care or tutor their children to bring them up to grade level. Provide information that will help them learn (or re-learn) how to function, without fear or shame, in the larger society. Lend them self-help books to read. Help with professional counseling as needed. Be available as a friend in a small group of friends. (Isnt that how Jesus would do it?)
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